For generations of Americans, going to summer camp as a child was a rite of passage. It's the first time many people learned to swim, sleep in a tent and cope with homesickness. "Bug juice" was drunk and best friends were made. The experience was immortalized in such cinema classics as The Parent Trap and Bill Murray's Meatballs, not to mention in dark fantasies with machete-wielding maniacs.
These days, summer camp is no longer seen as a given among many families. Some communities have year-round schooling, and more and more children enroll in summer school and enrichment and sports programs that make it harder to attend camps. Plus, many children say they would rather play video games.
A survey conducted in 2005 by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that today's kids are plugged into electronic media an average of five-and-a-half hours a day, which is practically a full-time job. That's unfortunate, explains Richard Louv, chair of the Children and Nature Network and author of the groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv coined the provocative term nature-deficit disorder because he observed that kids are spending less and less time outdoors, even though research shows interaction with the natural environment plays an important role in development.
Camp, however, can be a great place for children of all walks of life to learn independence, while getting up close and personal with nature something that's crucial if the next generation is to deal with the enormous environmental challenges ahead. But how can parents make sure their children make the most out of their camp experience?
Five Questions to Ask the Camp Director Before You Send Off Your Kids
What's the camp's policy on electronic devices? Louv says he doesn't think a complete ban is necessarily required (although many camps do enforce them), but he points out that your child could be easily distracted if his or her tent mates spend all day playing the latest hand-held video games or text messaging their friends back home.
How much emphasis is placed on nature? According to Louv, too many camps these days are trying to be all things to all people, by offering computer courses, business seminars, and so on, when most aren't ideally suited for those kinds of activities. Instead, camps should make the most of their natural settings, and encourage visitors to immerse themselves in their environment.
At the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center, youth learn about forest wildlife, watersheds, gardening, sustainability, weather and other subjects. Jessica Decke, a program coordinator at Tanglewood, says, "A lot of what we do at the camp is based on teaching respect for the earth." This includes creative arts, orienteering (which helps youth become more comfortable outdoors) and even a low rope course, which Decke says helps instill community values.
Are there opportunities for independent play in nature? Louv points out that one of the contributors to nature-deficit disorder is aggressive overscheduling of children, which simply leaves them little time or energy to explore their world on their own. Camps need a balance between Lord of the Flies anarchy and a schedule of activities so packed that children can't wait to go back to school.
What is the camp doing to lessen its own environmental footprint? "More camps are starting to become aware of the effects they are having on the environment," said Decke. "They need to look at the big picture, and care for the earth, so we can continue to have summer camps." Decke suggests parents ask potential camps about the sustainability of their day-to-day practices, such as how they conserve energy and water, and if they recycle. "If the camp doesn't model their talk, campers aren't going to absorb the messages as readily," she added.
What kind of food does the facility serve? Many grownups still groan when they remember what they ate at camp: soggy French toast, mushy vegetables and rubbery macaroni. But many camps have come a long way since then, and take the opportunity to provide the invaluable example of earth-friendly eating. At Tanglewood, for example, much of the food is sourced locally. Whole grains and dark greens are staples, and the camp's organic garden provides fresh harvests all season.
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